The Sixth Amendment guarantees anyone accused of a crime the right to not just a lawyer – but the right to effective assistance of counsel. The Supreme Court has recently heard arguments in McCoy v Louisiana which examined conflicting duties of a lawyer to protect the best interests of his client and simultaneously carry out his wishes in crafting a defense strategy.
In 2008, Robert McCoy was arrested for the murders of the family members of his estranged wife. Throughout the entirety of the investigation and the case, Mr. McCoy maintained his innocence, and repeatedly refused to enter a guilty plea. Mc. McCoy had been appointed a public defender but requested their removal because he believed they were not assisting him in proving his innocence. The court allowed Mr. McCoy to represent himself until he was able to find substitute counsel – that of Mr. Larry English. Mr. English encouraged Mr. McCoy to enter a guilty plea. Mr. McCoy was facing the death penalty, and Mr. English believed there was substantial evidence that Mr. McCoy had committed the crime of which had been accused. He has since claimed that he was attempting to save his client’s life, using ‘every skill and trick of the trade.’ After several refusals from his client to plead guilty, Mr. English overrode Mr. McCoy’s desires, and indicated that he intended to concede his client’s guilt at the jury trial. Mr. McCoy attempted to discharge Mr. English, but the court ultimately denied this request, deeming it ‘untimely.’ At trial, Mr. English conceded his client’s guilt, in an attempt to get the death penalty off the table. The jury was unaffected, and returned a verdict of guilty on all three counts of first-degree murder, recommending the death penalty.
The Supreme Court eventually granted the certiorari, with hopes to answer the question of whether it violates a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel if the defense counsel concedes their client’s guilt over his or her express objection. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court was decidedly skeptical over Mr. English’s motives, with Justice Kagan believing the lawyer substituted his own goal of avoiding the death penalty, rather than the client’s goal, which was to maintain his innocence at all costs.
The Louisiana Supreme Court had examined the evidence on an earlier appeal, and had held that ‘admitting guilt in an attempt to avoid the imposition of the death penalty appears to constitute reasonable trial strategy.’ This court relied on an earlier Supreme Court case, Florida v. Nixon, which held that lawyers did not need to obtain their client’s express agreement before conceding guilty in a death-penalty case – but it did not address appropriate conduct for a case when the client expressly disagrees.
It seems somewhat clear from the comments of a few Justices that it was an error for the court to deny Mr. English’s request to withdraw from the case. He and his client had an inherent conflict of interest when they were unable to agree on a defense strategy. The Court was concerned, however, about the scope of the argument in favor of McCoy, fearing that reversing his conviction and remanding for a new trial would open a floodgate of litigation for defendants who disagreed with their lawyer’s trial strategy. Justice Breyer pondered about the ramifications of this decision for those defendants who were decidedly incapable of managing their own defense – would this precedent allow them to get rid of appointed counsel because they thought they knew better? At the end of the arguments, it appeared the justices were sympathetic to McCoy’s plight but stymied as to how to limit their conclusion to ensure defense lawyers were still able to mount a plausible defense on behalf of their clients. A decision is expected sometime in late June 2018.